The Internet’s ‘Six Strikes’ Rule Is About to Clamp Down on Your Illegal Downloads

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If you don't pay much attention to tech news, there's a good chance you haven't heard of the so-called "Six Strikes" copyright alert system, a new program that is being rolled out soon to crack down on illegal web piracy — downloads from Mega, BitTorrent, and the like.

But it's a very big deal. Six Strikes is the most ambitious attempt yet by the movie and music industries, in conjunction with major ISPs like Verizon and Comcast, to stop the flow of pirated content that they say costs the U.S. economy some $58 billion a year. It's an effort that opponents say could hurt small businesses, lead to a rash of Big Brother–esque privacy violations, and put too much power in the hands of giant multinational media corporations.

Here are some frequently asked questions about Six Strikes, and how it could change the way you use the web.

What is this thing, anyway?
The Six Strikes program, formally known as the "Copyright Alert System," works by warning Internet users who are downloading pirated content. It's been in the works for several years, and basically, it's meant to scare content pirates by giving them a series of escalating warnings about what will happen to them if they don't stop. According to the Center for Copyright Information, the organization that runs the program, the first time you're caught infringing, you'll get an "online alert" notifying you that you've misused copyrighted information (duh), and a link to "educational resources" outlining what copyright infringement is and why it's bad.

And what about the second time?
The second time, you get the same message again, but presumably with bigger font. The third and fourth times, though, the messages will have a "conspicuous mechanism" (read: a pop-up window) asking you to confirm that yes, you know you've violated the law. After the fifth time, things get serious. Your ISP can throttle your bandwidth, reducing your connection to the speed of a dial-up modem for two or three days. Your ISP can also be forced to give your IP address to the RIAA or MPAA for a possible lawsuit. And they can also take their own, independent steps. Leaked documents from AT&T show that they plan to block access to "many of the most frequently visited websites" for repeat offenders until users take an "online education tutorial on copyright."

What happens after six strikes? I really like my pirated episodes of Homeland.
Nobody knows, really. It's possible that ISPs could drop your subscription altogether. (Though not likely, since they really like having paying customers.) You could get sued. Or you could simply be bombarded with annoying pop-ups and slow-as-molasses Internet access until you back down.

Who's behind this?
The Center for Copyright Information, which is an organization formed specifically to implement this program. As you can see by cruising its "About" page, it's mostly representatives from the recording industry, the film industry, and companies like Verizon, Viacom, and AT&T.

So, basically, it's an unelected body of industry-connected officials who get to police the Internet?
Yep.

Are there any independent experts who aren't paid by giant media companies helping with this thing?
There's one, but it's a former RIAA lobbying firm.

When's it coming?
The CAS has been in the works since 2011, and every few months, rumors arise that it's finally being implemented. TorrentFreak says it has been told that February 18 is the official launch date, but CCI has denied that. In any event, it's not far off.

I use my roommate's HBO Go account to watch Girls — am I going to jail?
No. HBO Go, Netflix, and Hulu are all licensed content providers. The six strikes rule will apply only to copyrighted works downloaded over peer-to-peer networks. And in addition, it's likely that very few people will actually get sued because of this. The CCI has said its goal is to educate, not punish. So unless you're Kim Dotcom himself, you probably shouldn't start wearing disguises in public.

Won't this be a pain in the ass for businesses that offer free Wi-Fi to customers? After all, you can't control what people download at a coffee shop.
That's the fear. The rule will apply to all residential Internet connections. Which means that Starbucks, whose Wi-Fi is run through a special business-grade Internet connection, will be fine. But your neighborhood diner may use a residential connection, and therefore be subject to the same alerts and throttled bandwidth as everyone else. BGR writes about the worst-case scenario: "If you own a small mom-and-pop coffee shop, you could potentially wind up in court because just one of your customers has used your connection to repeatedly download or distribute copyrighted material." That could make a lot of small businesses using residential connections decide not to offer free Wi-Fi, rather than upgrade their service.

Will Six Strikes stop Internet piracy forever?
No chance. The rule will apply only to peer-to-peer sites like BitTorrent, and not every file-hosting service and streaming site on the web. Heavy users of file-sharing services have gotten pretty good at avoiding trouble, by using anonymizers and proxies to camouflage their IP addresses. Even the CCI says it knows there are "ways around it" and "other ways to pirate."

In addition, it's notoriously hard to identify when Internet copyright violations are happening, and the automated systems that are supposed to detect violations often misfire. Recently, HBO got made fun of for accidentally asking Google to censor some of its own sites. Nobody has any confidence that CCI will do any better.

So, in short, this program will likely snare a lot of casual BitTorrent users, and create a lot of false positives, while letting the really hard-core illegal downloaders continue unabated.

What is a "BitTorrent"?
You're probably safe.